As I walked down the Potsdamerstrasse a week ago and saw clouds of smoke pouring out of the roof of the Berlin Philarmonic's concert hall, it was hard not to think of previous fires in Berlin. A few weeks ago Germans marked the seventy-fifth anniversary of the May 10 book burning ceremony, led by the SA and university students, that took place at Berlin's Opernplatz. And a few months before, in February, the burning of the Reichstag, which permitted Hitler to consolidate his dictatorship in 1933, had its anniversary as well.
But this time, of course, the blaze had no lasting consequences, other than to disrupt the schedule of the Berlin Philarmonic. In fact, the dominant impression left behind by Berlin today is of a thriving capital, one that has come to terms with its various pasts, rapidly shedding its formerly close ties to America. While a Berlin Republic, as was divined by some in the early 1990s, may not be in the offing, Germany is very much focusing on its domestic problems and its integration into Europe rather than its relations with the United States. Anti-Americanism is the wrong word for it. Instead, indifference seems to be what many Germans now feel toward the United States. I had traveled to Berlin to receive a prize named after George F. Kennan and I don't think he would be surprised by the current state of affairs. Kennan, who was a foreign-service officer in Hamburg and Berlin before and after the Nazis came to power, never had any illusions about America's role in Europe, and was quite critical of it, both during and after the cold war, lambasting the Clinton administration's expansion of NATO in the 1990s.
Today the impression left behind by the United States is epitomized by its embassy near the Brandenburg Gate, which resembles something of a fortress that no one would want to try entering. The bunker mentality is everywhere and scorned. For example, the Bush administration's insistence on pushing for missile defense in Poland and the Czech Republic is widely viewed as inimical to Germany's true interests: the former-deputy foreign minister Helmut Schaefer, a longtime proponent of reconciliation with Russia, told me, "The Bush administration says that Iran will never be allowed to build nuclear weapons. Then it says we need the defenses to protect against Iran."
The best the American ambassador, William Robert Timken, a hapless crony of George W. Bush's from Ohio, could do recently was to publish a fatuous op-ed in the Berlin Tagesspiegel, announcing that just as America had fought for the liberation of East Germany, so it would continue to struggle for freedom in Cuba. It did not escape many Germans that Cuba is where the United States is running what they see as a mini-Gulag at Guantánamo Bay. Otherwise, Berlin is effacing many signs of the former American presence in Berlin, including shutting down the Tempelhof Airport, where German children gathered in 1948 to watch American planes land during the airlift that countered the Soviet blockade of the city. One (West) Berliner told me, "I don't want to sound paranoid, but they're taking away all of our landmarks."
Similarly, in foreign policy, Germany is mostly looking East. The Social Democrats, led by foreign minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier, are continuing the policy set by former-Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder of a pro-Russian course. Germany counts on Russia as an energy supplier and wants no disruptions in Berlin-Moscow relations. Steinmeier wasted no time arranging a visit with new Russian President Dmitry Medvedev. But he has clashed with Chancellor Angela Merkel, who grew up in the former East Germany and is more skeptical of intimate ties with the Kremlin. Issues such as human rights, however, have decidedly been put on the back burner in Germany: during the Dalai Lama's visit a week ago to Berlin, most politicians in the government shunned him. Only the development minister met with him-and at the Hotel Adlon, rather than in a government building.
Perhaps the snub shouldn't be surprising. Germany's focus is almost exclusively on economics and it has some reason to boast about its recent performance. While the United States limps along, Germany experienced 1.5 percent growth in its gross domestic product in the first quarter of 2008. So far, the strong euro has not crimped exports. Germany is looking to balance its budget by 2011. As a result, the main fight in Berlin is over cutting taxes, with the Social Democrats seeking to slash the payroll taxes and lower the barrier for its so-called wealth tax, while the conservative Christian Democrats oppose it. The opposition is justified. It's a lousy idea, one that would inhibit further growth and economic risk-taking.
If Germany faces one risk, it isn't in foreign policy but, like Japan, in an aging population. At the moment, falling birth rates and higher life expectancy offer a gloomy picture for the future. By 2050, one in three Germans will be over sixty-five years old. The senior lobby may come to exercise an iron grip on social benefits that could produce economic ruin, at least according to some of the gloomiest prognoses. Malte Lehming, a brilliantly provocative Berlin commentator, says that Germany is becoming nothing less than a "republic of fear," in which change and innovation are viewed with horror.
Maybe. But immigration could change that. The influx of foreigners into Berlin, from Eastern Europe, Turkey and Africa, itself might eventually serve as something of a model for the rest of Germany. Certainly the eastern half of the country, which has lost a good chunk of its population, will be ripe for new arrivals. And if the ferment in Berlin is any indication, Germany is rebounding from its slump in the 1990s. If America tends to indulge in excessive optimism, whether in economic bubbles or crusades for democracy in far-off lands, then the German penchant for brooding may be the flip-side that keeps it from indulging in too much complacency. Once the ward of the United States, Germany is showing distinct signs of self-reliance and independence.
Jacob Heilbrunn is a senior editor at The National Interest.